Johnny Baker (Joel McCrea) is on a ship headed for a group of islands in the South Seas, and after they negotiate the reef, the natives row out to meet them. They seem at first sight to be a playful bunch, and the crew and passengers of the ship take great delight in throwing trinkets into the sea so they can dive to catch them, so much so that prized personal possessions are gaily lobbed into the water. It's all good fun until a shark is spotted, and Johnny gets his foot caught in a line, landing him overboard and in danger of drowning, but the natives come to his aid and free him. Back on board, Johnny wakes to see the face of local Princess Luana (Dolores del Rio) - could this be paradise?
Inspired by the previous year's hit drama-documentary Tabu, Bird of Paradise was actually based on a play, but the upside and downside of island life depicted was the backdrop to a swooning romance between the civilised white man and the ingenuous native girl. It's pure fantasy, with the two lovers scantily clad for most of their screen time, which this being a pre-Code movie they could get away with. A lot of this film's cult derives from this early thirties, Hollywood version of eroticism, where a faraway land and exotic culture are the perfect aphrodisiac.
The film can be compared to the same year's Tarzan the Ape Man, except here it's the man who's the worldly one and the woman the innocent. Like that film's sequel, there's sequence where the female lead goes for a nude swim with the male protagonist eagerly pursuing her in an example of undwerwater foreplay. Obviously we don't see what happens after they get to shore, but with that passionate kiss before the tasteful fadeout we can well imagine what the get up to. Later, del Rio plays whole scenes dressed in nothing but a grass skirt and a garland of flowers preserving her dignity while McCrea is bare chested more often than not.
Still, for most viewers this escapism will be sabotaged by the fatally stagey production, making the whole story difficult to believe to say the least. In some ways, it's naivety is quite sweet, as Johnny finds that Luana is to be married to a nearby prince and does his darnedest to stop the ceremony going ahead. He doesn't quite make that, but he does gatecrash the wedding and scoop up his lover in his arms, spiriting her away under the noses of her fellow tribespersons. They end up escaping to a nearby island, where those Tarzan similarities really become apparent.
They have their own personal paradise now, but there's the problem of the volcano hanging over their heads. You see, the Princess Luana has been pledged to be thrown into the crater (!) to appease the Gods and while that's the last thing Johnny wishes to happen, she is more stoic about her impending fate. In the meantime, the couple frolic on their island, Johnny builds them a house, they find a goat from somewhere, and of course it cannot last. The natives are hunting them down, and when the volcano begins to erupt the machinations to drive these two apart for a tearjerking finale are inescapable. Considering she doesn't speak any English for over half the film, del Rio makes a good impression as the vivacious but melancholy princess, and if the romance is a bit too silly to be one of the greats, Bird of Paradise is a decent enough look at where fantasies sprung from in the America of 1932. Music by Max Steiner, the first soundtrack to be released on record.